Timotheus, Bacchus and Cecilia was composed in 2022 and is a setting of three sections of John Dryden’s great poem from 1697 (in celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day) Alexander’s Feast: Or The Power of Music. Although the poem was written as an ode to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, most of the text is focused on two pre-Christian classical stories.
The first section presents Timotheus, the musician who served Alexander the Great and accompanied him in his military campaigns. The legend is that his music had a huge effect on the King, moving the great warrior from one passion to another.
Dryden’s poem refers to Timotheus’s “flying fingers,” his music ascending to the heavens, where it inspires joy. There are rich images of the god Jove, moved by love in “A dragon’s fiery form” and riding “on radiant spires” to Olympia. He then “stamp’d an image of himself, a sov’reign of the world,” and we are to assume that stamp is Alexander himself. Jove’s influence on the warrior king “seems to shake the spheres.”
The poet’s purpose is to present allegories for the power of music on the human soul and body, and later there are references to Bacchus, the god of celebration and drink. But what is being described here is Alexander’s attack on the Persian capital city of Persepolis. Dryden stresses the greed of the looting soldiers, who lost all control in their thievery, slaughter and destruction. Timotheus references the increased destruction that will follow the drunken debauchery, as he sings,
“Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure;
Rich the treasure,
Sweet the pleasure
Sweet the pleasure after pain.”
Some things never change and we have seen modern versions of this in the slaughter of Ukrainians recently.
The third and final section of the work presents St Cecilia, the martyr and Patron Saint of music. And there is a distinct change in musical mood at this point. After the drama and violence of the opening two sections there is the balm and serenity of a very different character:
“Enlarg’d the former narrow bounds
And added length to solemn sounds
With nature’s mother-wit and arts unknown before.
Or both divide the crown;
He rais’d a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down.”
The “narrow bounds” which Cecilia enlarges with her music is a reference to the ability of mere mortals to make such a ‘divine’ thing as music. And where Timotheus praises the mortal, Alexander, raising his name to the allegorical heights reserved for celebrated individuals, St. Cecilia’s music is so powerful that it tempts heavenly creatures (angels) to descend to earth.
Although this poem is of another time and dimension I was struck by its breadth and ambition to explore the transformative nature of music from a number of different angles. And its final suggestion that music might be a sacred thing, of heavenly concerns, is an idea which will never fade, being as vital now as it was in the eras of Timotheus, Alexander, Cecilia, Dryden and Handel, who also set this poem to music in 1736.
My work is scored for various choruses and large orchestra, in one movement lasting about 20 minutes, and is dedicated to my granddaughter Isabella Grace MacMillan.
James MacMillan, 2023
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer
Cincinnati Business Courier
“a magnificent work that is full of vivid tone painting”
“There were atmospheres lighter than air, and others that were bombastic and climactic”
“a thrilling finale”